Having heard only positive comments about Canongate’s The Myth series, I decided to read Weight by Jeanette Winterson. An author who loves and believes in ‘the power of story telling… and finding in them [stories] permanent truths about human nature’.
Whilst there is nothing new about retelling stories to different audiences, when skilfully done the story becomes new and takes on a life of its own.
Brief Plot: (from the blurb)
Condemned to shoulder the world, for ever, by the gods he dared defy, freedom seems unattainable to Atlas.
But then he receives an unexpected visit from Heracles, the one man strong enough to share the burden — and it seems they can strike a bargain that might release him…
Jeanette Winterson asks difficult questions about the nature of choice and coercion in her dazzling retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. Visionary and inventive, believable and intimate, Weight turns the familiar on its head to show us ourselves in a new light.
The pages before the introduction, written in different fonts, were poetic and rather interesting but reminded me of the opening lines of Gaiman’s Fragile Things a little too much for me to sit back and enjoy them. The first chapter, although compelling and educational threw me further off balance as the narrator whizzed through space and time in stops and starts that Dr Who would have been proud of, telling the reader ‘Your first parent was a star’. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it sort of chapter that has no bearing on the rest of the story, but I loved how the last line of every paragraph fed into the idea behind the next, even though it didn’t tie in with the myth.
There are two other chapters that have nothing to do with the main story and deal with the author and her own ‘Atlas complex’. Whilst their inclusion ties in with the main theme of the book (‘I want to tell the story again’), I felt that they were too personal to really work in the book.
Some aspects of the re-telling of the myth appealed to my inner-feminist (who comes to you with plucked eyebrows and freshly waxed armpits) and I think Hercules’ character will appeal to those who’ve always disliked the portrayal of sexist men as heroes.* Although women ‘always fall into his arms’, he shows all but one, Deianeira, contempt and loathing. He believed a woman ‘would never know what was good for her’ and casually weighs up the consequences of raping the goddess who wet-nursed him. When retouched with modern ink, Heracles becomes an odious, puerile creation whose downfall is quite satisfying. (No spoilers, but it’s worth a shufti).
Atlas’ punishment and his way of bearing it are movingly told: ‘They had captured his body, but not his thoughts’, yet it is not really dwelt on. In addition, his character is not developed as much as I feel it could have been. All the same, by the end of the novel it is impossible not to wish him the best.
The story was a mixture of poetic prose with stand-alone sentences that had more weight and meaning than entire paragraphs. As said before, I felt that Atlas’ character was under-developed and that limited the story a little.
I wouldn’t recommend this to people who aren’t interested in mythology/ Canongate’s myth series. Or to people who don’t have a copy of the book to hand and a couple of hours to spare (it’s only 151 pages). Despite this, I’ll be reading the other novels in the series as it is a cracking idea.
Wild Night In’s Verdict? Wavering towards wail.
* Yes, I know that feminism is technically a modern concept and new ways of ‘reading’ shouldn’t be applied to older texts but hey, most of us do that on some level, even if we’re also reading the text to find out about past beliefs/ ideas, etc.